Most independent observers don’t realize this, but the judicial system is stacked against our clients in every way. We get a front row seat to watch the injustices pile up every day. And we face defeat far more often than we experience the sweetness of victory. That may be why, when our advocacy results in a victory for a client, that success is forever etched in our minds. Some of the obvious examples are Not Guilty verdicts, a motion granted, or obtaining a sentence variance or mitigation.
But one of the most powerful moments you can experience as a criminal defense lawyer has to be standing with someone exonerated after serving time based on a wrongful conviction. I have only had this experience once in my career, but that moment could carry me for a lifetime. The sense of relief and joy is overwhelming. When someone finally listens to cries that had previously fallen on deaf ears, the catharsis is both surreal and hard to fully grasp in the moment.
Lisa Cahill shared such a moment with her client last week. Cahill represented Vanessa Gathers along with the Legal Aid Society and helped to vacate Gather’s manslaughter conviction. Gathers spent 10 years in prison based on a coerced confession, which was the only evidence presented at trial. Her exoneration is related to a string of wrongful convictions at the hands of Detective Scarcella, whose questionable tactics of investigation in multiple murder cases recently came to light after many years. Reading about his means-to-an-end attitude in obtaining convictions is both revolting and chilling. As Cahill properly notes, many people’s lives were destroyed and damaged by his actions.
At the hearing to vacate the conviction, The New York Times quoted Cahill honoring Scarcella’s victims: “Today is a joyous day for all of us, but there is a bittersweet tinge to all this, and that is the victim and his family,” she said. “In many respects they were as much victims of Detective Scarcella as Ms. Gathers was.”
What a great victory for the client and for Lisa Cahill! Cahill’s grace in the moment of victory must be commended. She stood tall with her client and demonstrated the heart of a champion.